Dr. Jane Goodall's fieldwork with chimpanzees in Tanzania changed how we think about primates and their relationship to humans.

Icons related to zoology and animal science to represent Jane Goodall's career and field work with chimpanzees

Stories of Diversity, Disability, and Difference in STEM

This profile is the 10th in our STEM is for Everyone: Scientists with Disabilities series, sponsored by Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation.

Many of the inspiring scientists and engineers we have featured have disabilities that are visible or more apparent from the outside—blindness, hearing loss, difficulty walking, and even autism. But many disabilities are much less obvious. In many cases, unless an individual tells you about a disability, you might not realize the challenge is there.

We round out our series with this profile of Dr. Jane Goodall, one of the world's most well-known and well-loved zoologists and primatologists. You probably know about Dr. Goodall and her work in the Gombe Stream National Park, but you might not associate Dr. Goodall with a disability. She's been successfully working with chimpanzees in Tanzania, Africa since the 1960s. How does Dr. Goodall fit into the STEM is for Everyone series? Dr. Goodall has prosopagnosia, or "face blindness." Prosopagnosia may not pose the same degree of challenge that a disability like deafness does, but it does affect how one interacts with others. These kinds of social interactions can be very important in the workplace and in STEM careers.

A Fascination with Animals

Inspired by stories of Tarzan and Dr. Doolittle, Dr. Goodall says she always wanted to grow up and observe animals in Africa. As a child, she loved studying animals and nature. Dr. Goodall often talks about the stuffed animal she was given as a child—a chimpanzee named Jubilee. (She reportedly still has Jubilee today!) The toy was a keepsake to celebrate the birth of a baby chimpanzee at the local zoo, but it seems to have set Dr. Goodall's future in motion.

Dr. Goodall's parents supported her interest in animals and her desire to go to Africa. Her mother gave her advice that Dr. Goodall now shares with students around the world:

“The advice I give to young people today is exactly what my mother gave to me when I was 10 and I said, 'I'm going to grow up and go to Africa, live with wild animals, and write books about them.' My mother always said, ‘if you really want something, you’re going to have to work hard. You’ll have to take advantage of every opportunity but don’t give up.’”
(Dr. Jane Goodall)

When Dr. Goodall first went to the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in Tanzania under direction of anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey, she began what turned into a lifelong study of chimpanzees. The process of gaining their trust was slow and required extraordinary patience, but Dr. Goodall's fieldwork and observations changed what was known about chimpanzees. She observed chimpanzees making tools, hunting, and eating meat. All of these observations challenged what scientists thought about chimpanzees at the time. Her discoveries forced scientists to think differently about chimpanzees and how we understand them in relation to humans. Dr. Goodall also observed and documented social structures among chimpanzees and the use of a system of communication, their own language.

Before Dr. Goodall went to the Gombe Stream, she was part of an expedition with Dr. Leakey and his wife, archeologist Mary Leakey, to study fossils. Looking at the path Dr. Goodall's life has taken, it is interesting to think that she could have spent a lifetime studying something other than chimpanzees!

"I could have learned a whole lot more about fossils and become a paleontologist. But my childhood dream was as strong as ever—somehow I must find a way to watch free, wild animals living their own, undisturbed lives—I wanted to learn things that no one else knew, uncover secrets through patient observation. I wanted to come as close to talking to animals as I could."
(Dr. Jane Goodall)

Saving the World's Chimpanzees

Dr. Goodall's fieldwork, and the time she spent living with and studying chimpanzees, has transformed our understanding of primates and brought a great deal of awareness to issues related to primate preservation, environmental conservation, and climate issues. Chimpanzees are an endangered species.The number of living chimpanzees has declined dramatically since Dr. Goodall first started her studies in 1960. There were over a million chimpanzees then, but today, only an estimated 172,000-300,000 chimpanzees remain in the wild. Through the Jane Goodall Institute and other organizations, Dr. Goodall continues to work to raise awareness and save the chimpanzees.

Face Blindness

If you watch Dr. Goodall in an interview or on TV, you might never realize she has prosopagnosia or "face blindness." Dr. Goodall and her sister both have prosopagnosia, but it seems that Dr. Goodall did not realize her trouble recognizing faces had a "name" until adulthood. Once she became aware that others had similar trouble with faces, she contacted Oliver Sacks, a neurologist who also suffers from prosopagnosia.

In an excellent essay on face-blindness, Sacks describes Dr. Goodall's face blindness. "Her problems extend to recognizing chimpanzees as well as people," writes Sacks. "Thus, she says, she is often unable to distinguish individual chimps by their faces. Once she knows a particular chimp well, she ceases to have difficulties; similarly, she has no problem with family and friends. But, she says, 'I have huge problems with people with average faces. . . . I have to search for a mole or something. I find it very embarrassing! I can be all day with someone and not know them the next day.'"

Some people are born with prosopagnosia. This is called congenital prosopagnosia. Others acquire prosopagnosia as the result of a stroke or other medical event. Prosopagnosia is reported to affect 2-2.5% of the population. It is also estimated that 1 in 50 Americans have some degree of face blindness and have difficulty determining or remembering someone's identity based on facial features.

"In the course of my travels, one thing detracts from my enjoyment of meeting people," writes Dr. Goodall in Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey. "I suffer from an embarrassing, curiously humbling neurological condition called prosopagnosia, which, translated, means I have problems in face recognition. I used to think it was due to some mental laziness, and I tried desperately to memorize the faces of people I met so that, if I saw them the next day, I would recognize them."

For someone who is face blind, every face may appear to be a new face or the face of a stranger, even if it is someone the person sees and interacts with every day. In extreme cases, someone with prosopagnosia may not recognize family members. In social settings and in the workplace, face blindness can create awkward scenarios and cause unexpected problems simply because individuals aren't able to recognize people they should recognize. For someone who has prosopagnosia, the social cues and patterns of interaction that go along with recognizing someone (like saying hello or addressing someone by name) are often overlooked.

To compensate for her face-blindness, Dr. Goodall has said she acts as if she recognizes everyone, even if it might really be someone she's never met. "This leads to strange situations, but it's not worse than the other way around," she says.

Some people with face-blindness are able to learn workarounds or strategies to help remember people, even if recognizing and remembering faces remains impossible. Unfortunately, these strategies don't work in all situations or for everyone with prosopagnosia.

While recognizing people, and even chimpanzees, based on facial features may be difficult, Dr. Goodall has spent much of her life living with chimpanzees, establishing bonds with specific chimpanzees, and sharing her observations and findings with the world.

Explore Zoology and Animal Science with Student Projects and Lessons

Students inspired by Jane Goodall and interested in zoology and animal science may enjoy projects like these:

Students curious about face blindness and other neurological conditions and human behavior may enjoy projects like these:

Educators can teach about zoology and animal science with lesson plans like:

Related STEM Careers

The following career profiles help students learn more about careers related to zoology and working with animals:

Related Reading about Jane Goodall

In the Shadow of Man The Story of Jane Goodall Who Is Jane Goodall? My Life with the Chimpanzees Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall I am Jane Goodall Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe The Watcher: Jane Goodall's Life with the Chimps Me, Jane

For additional STEM reading suggestions, see Book list for science-filled summer reading!.

Learn More

The STEM is for Everyone Series

For more information about this series of profiles of scientists with disabilities and to learn about other scientists and engineers, see the following posts:




This post is part of our STEM is for Everyone: Scientists with Disabilities series. This series is made possible by generous support from Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation, a non-profit foundation jointly funded by Mitsubishi Electric Corporation of Japan and its US affiliates, working to make changes for the better by empowering youth with disabilities to lead productive lives.

Zoology icons adapted from icons by Freepik from www.flaticon.com.

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